Following in the Footsteps of Balboa

The first European to glimpse the Pacific from the Americas crossed Panama on foot 500 years ago. Our intrepid author retraces his journey

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men / Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darién. —John Keats (Alexander Arosemena)
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Juan Carlos Navarro delights in pointing out that John Keats got it all wrong in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The Romantic poet, he says, not only misidentified the first European to glimpse the Pacific Ocean, but his account of the mountain looming over a tropical wilderness in what is now Panama was, by any stretch, overly romantic.

Navarro, an environmentalist who served two terms as the mayor of Panama City and is the early favorite in his country’s 2014 presidential elections, notes that it was actually the Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa who did the glimpsing, and that countryman Hernán Cortés—the cutthroat conqueror of the Aztec Empire—wasn’t even in the neighborhood during the 1513 isthmus crossing.

Nor was the peak—Pechito Parado—technically in Darién, the first permanent mainland European settlement in the New World. “Today, the Darién is a sparsely populated region of Panama,” says Navarro, the only presidential candidate who has ever campaigned there. “In Balboa’s day, it was just a town—Santa María la Antigua del Darién—on the Caribbean side.”

Of all the inaccuracies in the sestet, the one Navarro finds the most laughable is the reaction of the expedition party after spotting the Pacific, which, to be persnickety, Balboa named Mar del Sur (the South Sea). “The look of the men hardly could have been one of ‘wild surmise,’” Navarro says, disdainfully. “Before starting his journey, Balboa knew pretty much what he’d discover and what he could expect to find along the way.”

The same can’t be said for my own Darién adventure, a weeklong trudge that’s anything but poetry in motion. As Navarro and I lurch up Pechito Parado on this misty spring morning, I realize it isn’t a peak at all, but a sharply sloped hillock. We plod in the thickening heat through thorny underbrush, across massive root buttresses and over caravans of leaf-cutter ants bearing banners of pale purple membrillo flowers. The raucous bark of howler monkeys and the deafening cry of chicken-like chachalacas are constant, a Niagara of noise that gushes between the cuipo trees that tower into the canopy. The late humorist Will Cuppy wrote that the howl of the howler was caused by a large hyoid bone at the top of the trachea, and could be cured by a simple operation on the neck with an ax.

“Imagine what Balboa thought as he hiked through the rainforest,” says Navarro while pausing beside the spiny trunk of a sandbox tree, whose sap can cause blindness. “He had just escaped from the Spanish colony of Hispaniola—the island that comprises present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic—an arid, spare place with a rigid system of morality. He lands in a humid jungle teeming with exotic wildlife and people who speak a magical, musical language. He’s told that not far off are huge amounts of gold and pearls and an even huger sea. He probably thought, ‘I’m gonna be rich!’ For him, the Darién must have been mind-blowing.”

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the exploration that not only blew Balboa’s mind, but eventually caused him to lose his head. (Literally: Based on false charges brought by Pedro Arias Dávila, the father-in-law who had displaced him as governor of Darién, Balboa was decapitated in 1519.) The occasion is being celebrated with great fanfare in Panama City, where the crossing was a theme of this year’s annual carnival. Nearly a million people took part in the five days of spectacles, which featured a 50-float parade, 48 conga-dancing groups and 10 culecos—enormous trucks that blast music and drench spectators with (somewhat inaptly) tap water.


While conquistadors like Cortés and Francisco Pizarro are reviled throughout Latin America for their monstrous cruelty, the somewhat less ruthless but equally brutal Balboa (he ordered native chieftains to be tortured and murdered for failing to bend to his demands, and gay indigenes to be torn to pieces by dogs) is revered in Panama. Statues of the explorer abound in city parks, coins bear his likeness, the currency and the nation’s favorite beer are named for him, and the Panama Canal’s final Pacific lock is the Port of Balboa.

As depicted in Balboa of Darién, Kathleen Romoli’s indispensable 1953 biography, the Spanish-born mercenary was as resourceful as he was politically naïve. Balboa’s greatest weakness, she observed, was his “lovable and unfortunate inability to keep his animosities alive.” (He underestimated Dávila even after Daddy-in-Law Dearest had him put under house arrest, locked him in a cage and ordered his head to be chopped off and jammed on a pole in the village square.)

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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